Using Screenwriting Strategies in Your Novel

Forest Path in Part ShadeI’ve been using screenwriting techniques in my novels since the beginning of my published career. I find the three-act structure of a movie helpful in splitting my novel into manageable chunks of writing.

A few years ago I completed postgraduate studies in screenwriting. Since then, I’ve discovered many more similarities and differences between the two art forms. Here are just three things you might consider when writing your novel, whether it be a steamy romance, romantic comedy, Western, paranormal or thriller.

1) Movies often cheat in their openings. They disregard chronological order and often start at a high emotional moment in the story, sometimes even the climax, and work their way backward to explain how this moment came to be. “Mission Impossible III” did it, and we could all probably name several others. These movies try to hook the audience by starting with a moment filled with tension and conflict. I’m not saying a novel should start at the climax – but perhaps we can take a cue from this.

Julie Garwood uses this nonlinear technique in one of her books, a favorite of mine, ONE RED ROSE. Her opening sentence is “He found her in his bed.” Then she backs up in the story and tells us how that moment came to be – the hero returns home for a family reunion unexpectedly in the middle of the night, undresses in the dark…and eventually gets to the funny moment where he unknowingly slides in next to a sleeping warm body…

I am not suggesting that in your novel you must start at a later point and work your way backward. What I am suggesting is that you consider all your options. Wherever you start, make the opening sentence and opening paragraph emotional, and hint at conflict.

2) What’s that you say? Is your dialogue exciting, witty, filled with subtext and hidden meaning? Even if on the surface the dialogue seems mundane, perhaps the body language of the characters is at complete odds to what is being said, thereby making the interaction entertaining. Ask yourself this: If you happened to be walking by your characters while they were having a conversation, would you want to eavesdrop? If no, rewrite it. If yes, good job.

You’ve probably heard the term in screenwriting that dialogue shouldn’t be on-the-nose. This means screenwriters should avoid writing dialogue where characters always say exactly what they think or mean. It’s more interesting if things are said in a different way than straight-on. In novels, too, there should be wiggling and squirming and inability to communicate directly and hidden agendas and sarcasm and sometimes, plain-out lying. Not all the time, but it is entertaining fiction, after all. However, after the hero and heroine have gone through their transformational arc, they will have grown as people and in their ability and desire to communicate with each other.

About endings:  In romance novels, we usually like to see some sort of conclusion where the couple has an honest moment where they disclose their feelings. Most of us, as readers, like to see the conflict resolution unfold on the page. However, in Hollywood, writers are sometimes encouraged not to end it with characters directly saying, “I love you.” The characters may say it instead in their actions, or a funny remark where the audience gets the idea. It’s an interesting technique you might want to try in your ending. Or not. Or use in some combination.

3) Do you button your scenes well? In screenwriting, a button is the final joke or line of a scene that gives the scene a feeling of completion. If you’re good at it, this means ending the scene on a moment of suspense, or a moment of high emotion, or a moment of comedy.

Have you ever tried screenwriting? Do you prefer seeing a movie or novel open chronologically in time, or does it matter?

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